Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Snow Tires

In this installment, we continue Walter Gilmour’s narration of his encounters with Gary Zieger. Here we learn that a set of snow tires can loom as critical evidence. This account, taken from the earliest drafts of “Butcher, Baker,” has never been published before.


“Six months after he was sentenced for his role in the killing of the Native Alaskan boy, Beatty was placed on work release. It was then that he stole some snow tires and helped mount them on Gary Zieger’s truck. He remembered that one of the tires had been mounted on the rim in an inverted fashion. That remembered fact turned out to be a crucial variable in the ZeZe Mason murder investigation.

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“ZeZe was a 20-year-old airline employee who was hitchhiking to town on her day off. As she hitched near one of the many gravel pits in and around Anchorage, a truck driver picking up a load of gravel noticed her. He also spotted two men in a white 4-wheel-drive truck stop and pick her up. When the driver returned to get another load a half hour later, he saw the same young woman in the same truck, this time at a more remote site within the gravel pit, accompanied by only one male.

“When her half-clothed, sexually assaulted body was found on August 28, 1972, we noted that the pit where she rested was accessible only by a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. We also noted some distinctive tire tracks: where all the tires should have their knobby edges biting outward to provide more grip, one of the edges was biting inward. This was the mysterious inversely mounted tire that Zieger’s buddy was so helpful in identifying.

“Shortly after we discovered ZeZe’s body, a funny thing happened. We got a call from a woman who identified herself as the girlfriend of a man who was in the white 4-wheel-drive truck on the day ZeZe Mason was murdered. She told us she wanted to make sure we were looking for the right person in the truck that day. That person was not her boyfriend, she said, but someone else. Gary Zieger.

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1970 Chevrolet 4×4 Truck (example)

“We talked to the boyfriend, but he was not too helpful, other than confirming that he and Gary had gone for target practice near the gravel pit and had picked up a female hitchhiker. He wasn’t sure if it was ZeZe Mason; all he knew was that it was “some girl.” They left the gravel pit with the young woman riding in the middle, he said, and then Zieger dropped him at a nearby fire station. After that, Gary and the female continued on their way; the witness wasn’t sure of their destination.

By then we had a pretty good idea exactly where they were headed.


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Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Stone Cold Psychopath

His name was Gary Zieger. Kim Rich wrote about him in “Johnny’s Girl,” and how he turned her life inside out. Tom Brennan wrote about him in “Cold Crime,” describing the investigation that pegged him as a stone cold psychopath. One of my earlier blog entries has its own Zieger story.

And then there is what Walter Gilmour wrote about Gary Zieger. This account, taken from the earliest drafts of “Butcher, Baker,” has never been published before.

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Gary Zieger, Psychopath


“With Beth van Zanten’s foster cousin cleared by the box, and Hansen with an alibi, things were looking bleak, although I had still not run out of suspects, even with a long dry spell where there were no leads worth investigating. In August of 1972, at about the time Robert Hansen was transferred to a halfway house, a young woman named ZeZe Mason was found dead in a gravel pit just outside Anchorage.

“She had been missing for several weeks and our investigation quickly identified Gary Zieger as the prime suspect. I knew Zieger was a killer because he had come to our attention in another case, although he had never been arrested for his involvement.

“In the summer of 1971, State Troopers found the body of a young Native Alaskan boy in a secluded area of the Anchorage International Airport. To the best of our information, the boy had been murdered about three months before we found him. He had been shot six or eight times by a .22, and it was evident he had been running for his life, because there was a trail of shell casings stretching for 60 to 70 yards from where he had fallen.

“Just after we found the body, a guy named Beatty came in with his girlfriend and confessed to the murder. He came in because his girlfriend wouldn’t marry him until he came clean. That was fine. We had a body and a confession. Now all we needed was the murder weapon. While we worked on getting a search warrant for Beatty’s house, we kept it under surveillance. One night, a man unknown to the police came to the house, entered and then left shortly afterwards. We asked his name. He identified himself as Gary Zieger.

“When we finally got the warrant and searched Beatty’s house for the murder weason, it was gone. Zieger was our number one suspect; he was the only person who had come or gone from the residence.

“Beatty had not implicated Zieger in his initial confession. As part of his sentence, however, he agreed to give us the details. He revealed that he and Zieger had kidnapped the Native Alaskan kid in Zieger’s truck, and then forced him to perform oral sex. When he was finished, they told him he’d better run for his life, and he did.

“Zieger, who was a powerfully built man at 5’8” and 185 pounds, ran alongside the boy and shot him with the .22 pistol. Since a .22 isn’t the most lethal weapon, it had taken quite a chase and a whole lot of shots to bring the boy down and finally kill him.

This act alone marked Gary Zieger as a psychopath. There would be more.


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Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Frustration, Politics, Reality

Then-Corporal Walter Gilmour had reached a point in the Beth van Zanten case where, in his own words, “I couldn’t sleep for shit and I needed help.” At the peak of his frustration, he sought out fellow trooper Sgt. Don Church. Now assigned to Alaska’s statewide unit of major crime investigations — the Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB) — Church had met Gilmour when he was a recruit in the state police.

Even then, Church was a certified hero: during the 1964 earthquake, he was instrumental in saving hundreds of lives as he sent seismic warnings all over the villages in the Aleutian Chain, using his marine radio. He did more than that.

A coveted award citation from the National Police Officers of America noted the following of then-Trooper Church:

“On March 27, 1964 after completing a regular tour of duty this officer learned of an impending tidal wave and with complete disregard of his own safety spread the alarm to villages along his post. He continued for several days to search and rescue victims despite all obstacles.”

Gilmour needed a place to lay his frustration. More than that, he needed the guidance of this man who always stood cool under fire.

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Trooper Donald D. Church in 1964 (Click for Details)


The two of them met at Leroy’s Pancake place in mid-town Anchorage. Gilmour wasted no time getting to the point.

“Don, I’m really up a duck’s ass with this case. The Colonel thinks I’m pushing too hard but he won’t be specific as to what he is talking about and I’m not sure where he is getting his information. I really feel that I can make this case but there seems to be things going on that I’m not aware of. What do you think? Are we missing anything that should be done on this thing?”

Sgt. Church was immaculate as usual, always dressed in a suit and tie. He seemed to ponder the question as they were sitting there and, at one point, Gilmour thought he was not going to answer.

“Well,” says Church, “welcome to the real world. When you were in Fairbanks, you had everything your own way. And that’s why you were brought down here so that they can keep an eye on you. Then when things went your way on the Mayo case (1), you really pissed some of them off. Now you are stumped and they feel free to criticize your methods. It doesn’t make any difference what you do. If you don’t solve the case, you’re wrong.”

And then Church took Gilmour into the politics of frustration. He point-blank told him that another officer, Sgt. Anderson, was now a rival in the minds of both trooper leaders and, worse, his fellow officers. In part that was because Sgt. Anderson was the kind of trooper they admired: calm, collected, got along well with the local D.A.

“Some of the men worked for Anderson before you came along and some see themselves getting included in the CIB,” Church told him. “So they’re over brown-nosing him. Some guys think you are all wet thinking that this case is going to be solved. The worst part is that I have been told it doesn’t make any difference one way or another.”

“Shit, Don, you gotta be shitten me,” Gilmour replied. “What the hell. I was talking to the Director and he told me I could have anything that I needed and to see you if I needed any help.”

“That’s what I mean. Anderson wants the CIB to take over this case. But they are still calling it a local case. I told them you should keep the case, but they really want to take it, so they are going to be second-guessing you all the way along. If the Statewide theory of a criminal investigation bureau is going to have credibility, then they will need staff authority.

“And,” Church continued, “if this case isn’t solved they will decide that the CIB should have line authority. Even if the case is solved, you just got lucky again. Either way you’re the loser. Anyway, I heard that they are going to reorganize and put all the investigations, both local and statewide, under Anderson. That will give him enough to make Captain. Which might not be too bad; at least then there will be no question who is working for who. Because Anderson is the one with the real authority anyway.”

Gilmour’s frustration now met reality. As he later mused, “The thought that the men who were working under my command really felt that their best career bet was to show loyalty elsewhere always made me feel that I couldn’t be sure everyone was as enthusiastic for my plans and guidance as I might have wished.”

It was all there. Frustration. Politics. Reality. Truth was, none of it helped Gilmour solve the van Zanten case one way or the other. Some way, some how, they needed a break.


(1) In September, 1971, a Birchwood youth and his adult companion were found dead down a slope from the Glenn Highway in the Sheep Mountain area. According to police, Lorance Zimmerman, 44, of Spenard, and Paul Hair, 11, of Birchwood were last seen leaving Hair’s home on an errand to Gunsight Mountain. Police would not speculate on how the pair died, but the vehicle they’d been riding in was not found.

The vehicle was later located in Fairbanks. Troopers sent Gilmour to Fairbanks and he ultimately fingered a 21-year-old drifter named Willis B. Mayo, an escapee from the prison farm in Palmer, who was eventually arrested in Washington state for the murders. But not without controversy. The Fairbanks district attorney complained about what he saw as interference by Gilmour, because an Anchorage-based trooper had taken over an investigation in the Fairbanks Police jurisdiction.

For more on the Mayo case, get Cold Crime, by Tom Brennan.


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Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Scanning the Case Log

Two of Gilmour’s best leads had gone sideways — Greg passed his polygraph and Hansen had an alibi for the night of Beth’s slaying. Under those circumstances, he decided to take another look at the case log, which tracked all the leads phoned in by the good citizens of Anchorage. It was, if anything, a glance into the seamy underbelly of Alaska’s biggest city.

One gentleman, for example, generated six different case calls on four different days. All the reports were that he was jumping out of the woods on the horse trails. As Gilmour notes, “this guy is not just waving his lelly, he is stark, bareass naked.” He seemed to be, moreover, a bit of a fixture on the trails. Naturally, troopers asked why people were reporting him only now, inasmuch as none of them thought him dangerous or involved in the killing and rape.

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Horse Trails, Anchorage Bicentennial Park

The response made sense: none of them knew that for sure and they wanted the cops to check him out. So they did. The guy had a really tight alibi. Even the D.A. was reluctant to charge him, given that in this case everyone seemed to know him and his only crime was showing up naked on the riding trails.

Another guy wasn’t so lucky. Troopers arrested a guy that picked up a 15-year-old, saying he’d give her a ride home, then forcing her to perform oral sex instead. He told her there was no use in reporting it, because without physical evidence it would be her word against his and, since she was smoking dope, it would get her put in the youth center.


Here’s Gilmour, reporting the rest of the story:

“She was really scared to come in and talk to us, but she thought this guy might be the killer. Anyway, it was good that she came right in (1), because we were able to get a positive acid phosphatase (AP) test by swabbing her mouth (2). It was really a kick when we were able to talk to the suspect.

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“He gave us the normal drivel. Yeah, he picked her up; yeah, she had some dope in her purse and when she started smoking he wasn’t really sure what was going on because he had never seen or smelled m.j. before. But as soon as she started acting crazy, he put her out so that was probably why she was mad at him.

“When we told him about the acid phosphatase test he almost shit. He began to shiver, shake and do a real shake and bake. Then he began to cry and tell us how this would be upsetting to his wife.

“On the other side of the ledger, during the first year of Beth’s investigation one man was implicated in seventeen sexual assaults between the city and state. This guy went to trial a number of times and was acquitted because the women either drank with him or smoked dope — and all of them allegedly went out with him prior to the sexual assaults. Indeed, I was surprised at the number of people — women or the families of women — who called in and said that, while they didn’t think this would have any bearing on the case, that so and so had sexually assaulted them or someone they knew and maybe we should check him out.

We checked each and every one of them regarding their whereabouts the night we thought Beth disappeared. This was quite frustrating and had to be done with a great deal of care, since we had no complaint for a criminal investigation. It was these type of calls that made me believe the high number of rapes that rape centers across the country report, though they are never reported to the police.


(1) Analyses of post-coital swabs show that AP activity will markedly decrease after 24 hours and diminish after 48 hours.
(2) The male prostate gland produces and secrets into semen a high amount of the enzyme acid phosphatase (AP). Using a standard chemical reaction, a forensic laboratory can analyze a given stain for the presence of this enzyme. In the presence of Alpha-Naphthyl acid phosphate and Brentamine Fast Blue, AP will produce a dark purple color in less than a minute. The test for AP remains highly presumptive, however, due to the fact that vaginal secretions and other bodily fluids all contain detectable levels of this enzyme. In the modern era, DNA tests are used instead.

Source: Forensic Tests for Semen: What you should know, Forensic Resources, 2011


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Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Lab Results

As January dragged on, Walter Gilmour was called into the Director’s office, so that Col. Dankworth could brief him on changes in his job responsibilities. No matter the assignment, there was going to be a lab in his life: Gilmour was being shifted to drug investigations and, effectively, being taken off homicides. Even so, the Colonel asked, “By the way, are there any new developments on the McHugh Creek homicide?”

Always willing to say more than he should, Gilmour summarized the state of play.

“I can’t say for sure about the McHugh Creek case,” Gilmour admitted, “but it seems that we just don’t have much information. One of the family members seems to be telling an implausible story with regards to his time table and when he last saw the girl. We have searched his car for physical evidence, but prior to the search he had hit a moose and there is hair and blood all over the car. We haven’t really turned up physical evidence that would link him to the crime.

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Moose Crash Area, Kenai Peninsula

“Reed and I interviewed him, he admits that the photos taken in the parking lot look like the type of track left by his car,” Gilmour continued. “He says the photo of the footprint in the parking lot looks like the shoe print of the guy he was with, but he maintains he wasn’t there.

“He was overheard talking to another person on the phone, saying that he thought he was going to be arrested. He did ask questions about whether or not hair samples taken from him could also be from another Native. You know, whether or not his hair could be identified in the lab, the truth of the matter is that we really didn’t get any foreign hair from the victim combings, or any from her shirt, and that’s all we had to go from.”

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McHugh Creek @ Turnagain Arm (Anchorage Daily News)

“So what’s all this about matching his hair or blood,” Dankworth asked.

“Frankly, he doesn’t know that we don’t have the hair, but someone has been telling him that even if we did have hair, and were able to get a lab match on the blood type from the sperm we recovered from the victim, even that won’t be conclusive. The only thing we really have is the wire that was used to tie her hands and we are playing hell getting the wire identified.”

Gilmour was right. They didn’t have much to go on. The investigation into Beth’s cousin as a murder suspect was at its end, though years later Gilmour would still harbor suspicions.


Walter Gilmour’s narrative is taken from the his early, typewritten notes on “Butcher, Baker,” written in 1983-84. Much of this material ended up on the cutting room floor, as the narrative shifted to the events surrounding Cindy Paulson, a full decade after Beth van Zanten’s murder. It is an honor to share it now, so many years on.


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Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Ron Broughton Returns

After Greg Nicholas pointed the finger at his cousin, troopers gave him the opportunity for a rebuttal or, at least, a reaction. Two days after talking to Greg, they caught up with Ron Broughton. And they confronted him.


INTERVIEW: Ron Broughton, January 7, 1972
“Greg has not been in contact with me. I do not know why he would point the finger at me, although he does many strange things.

“I have no knowledge of Beth or how she was killed. Greg never told me anything concerning Beth. As I stated before, I have no knowledge of the incident or am I involved. I do not believe Greg is involved.

Gilmour: You said you went to the garage. Where did you go after you went to the garage?

Ronnie: From there [the garage] we either went straight to the Montana Club or to Beth’s house. But we were together.

Gilmour: Were you together the whole time at the Montana Club?

Ronnie: No. I walked back and gave Greg a 10 dollar bill and told him I was going to the Alley Cat and cash a check.


The inconsistencies are rife here, even in this short exchange. Consider this one: Ronnie claims he gave Greg a 10 dollar bill. On December 26, Greg told troopers the following: “Ronnie did not have any money. I gave him $20.00.”

More than once, Ronnie testifies differently. Specifically, he twice refers to cashing an Alaska Scallop Fleet check at the Alley Cat bar. Yes, he had money. Hard earned money. Scallop fishing money.

The typical day of scallop fishermen begins with the sound of dredges being hauled, as scallop vessels operate around the clock, making 15 to 21 dredge tows daily. The crew brings the dredge aboard and empties its contents onto the deck where they collect scallop “keepers.”

Ron

It is possible, of course, that the subtlety of meaning has gone missing in these exchanges. Perhaps Greg meant that Ronnie didn’t have any cash, hence the need to front him some money. But that interpretation strains credibility. As in all things with this case, it devolved into inconclusiveness within inconclusiveness. Gilmour was nearing the end of the string, in more ways than one.


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True Crime: “What Happened in Craig” Available – Update

In the enthusiasm for my latest book, I got a little ahead of myself. I announced that the ebook was ready for pre-order, with delivery by September 1, 2018. As those who pre-ordered “What Happened in Craig” know, that option is no longer available. A cancellation notice has been sent in its place. My apologies.

So now comes the correction. Instead of the ebook, the print version will soon be shipping (September 18, 2018). And it is the print version that is now AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER. HERE TOO. Got that? Me too!

Best of all, “What Happened in Craig” will also be ready for purchase at your favorite LOCAL BOOKSTORE. Hooray!

Available

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UPCOMING Appearances: Alaska Book Week

I’ll be at Alaska Book Week to talk about true-crime and my latest book, “What Happened in Craig.” Hope to see you all there!

  • Anchorage Barnes & Noble, Wed. October 10, 5-8 pm
  • Alaska State Trooper Museum (FOAST), Anchorage, Thu. October 11, 5-7 pm
  • University of Alaska Anchorage Library, Fri. October 12, 4-6 pm